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Full text of "The nature and characteristics of literature : a lecture delivered before the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, in the Catholic University"

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The Nature and Characteristics of Literature. 



LECTURE 

DELIVERED BEFORE THE FACULTY 
OF PHILOSOPHY AND LETTERS, 

IN THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY. 

BY 

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN, D.D., RECTOR. 

Published at the request of the Faculty. 



DUBLIN: 
PRINTED BY JOHN F. EOWLER, 

3 CROW STREET, AND 24 TEMPLE LANE. 
1858. 



A LECTURE, 

ETC. 



Wishing to address you, Gentlemen, at the com- 
mencement of a new Session, I tried to find a 
subject for discussion, whicli might be at once 
suitable to the occasion, yet neither too large for 
your time, nor too minute or abstruse for your at- 
tention. I think I see one for my purpose in the 
very title of your Faculty. It is the Faculty of 
Philosophy and Letters. Now the question may 
arise as to what is meant by " Philosophy", and 
what is meant by " Letters". As to the other 
Faculties, the subject-matter which they profess 
is intelhgible, as soon as named, and beyond all 
dispute. We know what Science is, what Medi- 
cine, what Law, and what Theology; but we 
have not so much ease in determining what is 
meant by Philosopliy and Letters. Each depart- 
ment of that twofold province needs explanation : 
it -will be sufficient, on an occasion like this, to 
investigate one of them. Accordingly I shall 
select for remark the latter of the two, and at- 



tempt to determine what we are to understand 
by Letters or Literature, in what Literature con- 
sists, and how it stands relatively to Science. 
We speak, for instance, of ancient and modem 
literature, the literature of the day, sacred lite- 
rature, light literature; and our lectures in this 
place are devoted to classical literature and En- 
glish literature. Are Letters then synonymous 
with books ? This cannot be, or they would in- 
clude in their range Philosophy, Law, and in 
short, the teaching of all the other Faculties. 
Far from confusing these various studies, we 
view the works of Plato or Cicero sometimes as 
philosophy, sometimes as literature ; on the other 
hand, no one would ever be tempted to speak 
of Euchd as literature, or of Matthiae's Greek 
Grammar. Is then literature synonymous with 
composition? with books written with an atten- 
tion to style? is literature fine writing? again, is 
it studied and artificial writing? 

There are excellent persons who seem to adopt 
this last account of Literature, as their own idea 
of it. They depreciate it, as if it were the result 
of a mere art or trick of words. Professedly in- 
deed, they are aiming at the Greek and Roman 
classics, but their argument has quite as great 



force against all literature as against any. I think 
I shall be best able to bring out what I have to 
say on the subject, by examining the statements 
which they make in defence of their own view 
of it. They contend then, 1. that fine writing, 
as exemplified in the Classics, is mainly a matter 
of conceits, fancies, and prettinesses, decked out 
in fine words; 2. that this is the proof of it, 
that the classics mil not bear translating ; — and 
this is why I have said that the real attack is 
upon literature altogether, not the classical only ; 
for, to speak generally, all literature, modern as 
well as ancient, lies under this ^lisadvantage. 
This, however, they will not allow; for they 
maintain, 3. that Holy Scripture presents a re- 
markable contrast to secular on this very point, 
in that Scripture does easily admit of translation, 
though it is the most sublime and beautiful of 
all writings. 

Now I will begin by stating these three posi- 
tions in the words of a writer, who is cited by the 
estimable Catholics in question, as a witness, or 
rather as an advocate, in their behalf, though he 
is far from being able to challenge the respect 
which is inspired by themselves. 

" There are two sorts of eloquence", says this 



6 

writer, " the one indeed scarce deserves the 
name of it, which consists chiefly in laboured 
and polished periods, an over-curious and arti- 
ficial arrangement of figures, tinselled over with 
a gaudy embellishment of words, which glitter, 
but convey little or no light to the understanding. 
This kind of writing is for the most part much 
affected and admired by the people of weak 
judgment and vicious taste ; but it is a piece of 
affectation and formahty the sacred writers are 
utter strangers to. It is a vain and boyish elo- 
quence; and, as it has always been esteemed 
below the great geniuses of all ages, so much 
more so, with respect to those writers who were 
actuated by the spirit of Infinite Wisdom, and 
therefore wrote with that force and majesty with 
which never man writ. The other sort of elo- 
quence is quite the reverse to this, and which 
may be said to be the true characteiistic of 
the Holy Scriptures ; where the excellence does 
not arise from a laboured and far-fetched elo- 
cution, but from a surprising mixture of sim- 
plicity and majesty, which is a double character, 
so difficult to be united, that it is seldom to be 
met with in compositions merely human. We see 
nothing in Holy Writ of affectation and superfluous 



ornament . . . Now, it is observable that the most 
excellent profane authors, whether Greek or 
Latin, lose most of their graces whenever we find 
them literally translated. Homer's famed repre- 
sentation of Jupiter — his cried-up description of a 
tempest, his relation of Neptune's shaking the 
earth and opening it to its centre, his description 
of Pallas's horses, with numbers of other long- 
since admired passages, flag, and almost vanish 
away, in the vulgar Latin translation. 

" Let any one but take the pains to read the 
common Latin interpretations of Virgil, Theo- 
critus, or even of Pindar, and one may venture 
to affirm, he will be able to trace out but few re- 
mains of the graces which charmed him so much 
in the original. The natural conclusion from 
hence is, that in the classical authors, the ex- 
pression, the sweetness of the numbers, occasioned 
by a musical placing of words, constitute a great 
part of their beauties; whereas in the sacred 
writings, they consist more in the greatness of 
the things themselves, than in the words and ex- 
pressions. The ideas and conceptions are so great 
and lofty in their own nature, that they neces- 
sarily appear magnificent in the most artless dress. 
Look but into the Bible, and we see them shine 



8 

tlirough the most simple and literal translations. 
That glorious description which Moses gives of 
the creation of the heavens and the earth, which 
Longinus . . . was so greatly taken with, has not 
lost the least whit of its intrinsic worth, and 
though it has undergone so many translations, 
yet triumphs over all, and breaks forth with as 
much force and vehemence as in the original. . . . 
In the history of Joseph, where Joseph makes him- 
self known, and weeps aloud upon the neck of 
his dear brother Benjamin, that all tne house of 
Pharaoh heard him, at that instant none of his 
brethren are introduced as uttering aught, either 
to express their present joy or palliate their for* 
mer injuries to him. On all sides, there im- 
mediately ensues a deep and solemn silence ; a 
silence infinitely more eloquent and expressive 
than anything else could have been substituted 
in its place. Had Thucydides, Herodotus, Livy, 
or any of the celebrated classical historians, been 
employed in writing this history, when they 
came to this point, they would doubtless have 
exhausted all their fund of eloquence in furnish- 
ing Joseph's brethren with laboured and studied 
harangues, which, however fine they might have 
been in themselves, would nevertheless have 



been unnatural, and altogether improper on the 
occasion".* 

This is eloquently written, but it contains, I 
consider, a mixture of truth and falsehood, which 
it will be my business to discriminate from each 
other. Far be it from me to deny the unapproach- 
able grandeur and simplicity of Holy Scripture ; 
but I shall maintain that the classics are, as hu- 
man compositions, simple and majestic and natu- 
ral too. I grant that Scripture is concerned in 
things, but I will not grant that classical htera- 
ture is simply concerned with words. I grant 
that human literature is often elaborate, but I 
will maintain that elaborate composition is not 
unknown to the writers of Scripture. I grant that 
human literature cannot easily be translated out 
of the particular language to which it, belongs ; 
but it is not at all the rule that Scripture can 
easily be translated either; — and now I address 
myself to my task : — 

Here then, in the first place, I observe. Gentle- 
men, that. Literature, from the derivation of the 
word, implies writing, not speaking; this, how- 

• Sterne, Sermon xlii. 



10 

ever, arises from the circumstance of tlie copious- 
ness, variety, and public circulation of the matters 
of which it consists. What is spoken cannot out- 
run the range of the speaker's voice, and perishes 
in the uttering. When words are in demand to 
express a long course of thought, — when they 
have to be conveyed to the ends of the earth, or 
perpetuated for the benefit of posterity, they must 
be written down, that is, reduced to the shape of 
literature ; still, properly speaking, the terms, by 
which we denote this characteristic faculty of 
man, belong to its exhibition by means of the 
voice, not of handwriting. It addresses itself, 
in its primary idea, to the ear, not to the eye. 
We call it the power of speech, we call it lan- 
guage, that is, the use of the tongue ; and, even 
when we write, we still keep in mind what was 
its original instrument, for we use freely such 
terms in our books as saying, speaking, telling, 
talking, calling; we use the terms phraseology 
and diction ; as if we were still addressing our- 
selves to the ear. 

Now I insist on this, because it shows that 
speech, and therefore literature, which is its per- 
manent record, is essentially a personal work. 
It is not some production or result, attained by 



11 

the partnership of several persons, or by machi- 
nery, or by any natural process, but in its very 
idea it proceeds, and must proceed, from some one 
given individual. Two persons cannot be the 
authors of the sounds which strike our ear ; and, 
as they cannot be speaking one and the same 
speech, neither can they be writing one and the 
same lecture or discourse, — which must certainly 
belong to some one person or other, and is the 
expression of that one person's ideas and feelings, 
— ideas and feehngs personal to himself, though 
others may have parallel and similar ones, — 
proper to himself, in the same sense as his voice, 
his air, his countenance, his carriage, and his 
action, are personal. In other words. Literature 
expresses, not objective truth, as it is called, but 
subjective ; not things, but thoughts. 

Now this doctrine will become clearer by con- 
sidering another use of words, which does relate 
to objective tinith, or to things ; which relates to 
matters, not personal, not subjective to the indi- 
vidual, but, which even were there no individual 
man in the whole world to know them or to talk 
about them, would exist still. Such objects be- 
come the matter of Science, and words indeed are 
used to express them, but such words are rather 



12 

symbols than language; and, however many we 
use, and, however we may perpetuate them by 
writing, we never could make any kind of litera- 
ture out of them, or call them by that name. 
Such, for instance, would be Euclid's Elements ; 
they relate to truths universal and eternal ; they 
are not mere thoughts, but things : they exist in 
themselves, not by virtue of our understanding 
them, not in dependence upon our will, but in 
what is called the nature of things, or at least on 
conditions external to us. The words then in 
which they are set forth are not language, speech, 
literature, but rather, as I have said, symbols. 
And, as a proof of it, you will recollect, that it is 
possible, nay usual, to set forth the propositions of 
EucUd in algebraical notation, which, as all would 
admit, has nothing to do with literature. Wliat 
is true of mathematics, is true also of every 
study, so far forth as it is scientific ; it makes use 
of words as the mere vehicle of things, and is 
thereby withdrawn from the province of lite- 
rature. Thus metaphysics, ethics, law, political 
economy, chemistry, theology, cease to be lite- 
rature in the same degree as they are capable of 
a severe scientific treatment. And hence it is 
that Aristotle's works on the one hand, though 



13 

at first sight literature, approach in character, at 
least a great number of them, to mere science ; 
for even though the things which he treats of 
and exhibits may not always be real and true, 
yet he treats them as if they were, not as if they 
were the thoughts of his own mind ; that is, he 
treats them scientifically. On the other hand 
Law or Natural History has before now been 
treated by an author with so much of colouring 
derived from his own mind, as to become a sort 
of literature ; this is especially seen in the instance 
of Theology, when it takes the shape of Pulpit 
Eloquence. It is seen too in historical composition, 
which becomes a mere specimen of chronology 
or a chronicle, when divested of the philosophy, 
the skill, or the party and personal feelings of the 
particular writer. Science then has to do with 
things, literature with thoughts ; science is uni- 
versal, hterature is personal; science uses words 
merely as symbols, but literature uses language 
in its full compass, as including phraseology, 
idiom, style, composition, rhythm, eloquence, and 
whatever other properties are included in it. 

Let us then put aside the scientific use of 
words, when we are to speak of language and lite- 
rature. Literature is the personal use or exercise 



14 

of language. Tliat this is so, is further proved from 
the fact that one author uses it so differently from 
another. Language itself in its very origination 
would seem to be traceable to individuals. Their 
pecuharities have given it its character. We are 
often able in fact to trace particular phrases or 
idioms to individuals; we know the history of 
their rise. Slang surely, as it is called, comes 
of, and breathes of the personal. The connec- 
tion between the force of words in particular lan- 
guages and the habits and sentiments of the na- 
tions speaking them, has often been pointed out. 
And, while the many use language, as they find it, 
the man of genius uses it indeed, but subjects it 
withal to his own purposes, and moulds it accord- 
ing to his own peculiarities. The throng and 
succession of ideas, thoughts, feelings, imagina- 
tions, aspirations, which pass within him, the ab- 
stractions, the juxtapositions, the comparisons, 
the discriminations, the conceptions, which are so 
original in him, his views of external things, his 
judgments upon life, manners, and history, the ex- 
ercises of his wit, of his humour, of his depth, of his 
sagacity, — he images forth all these innumerable 
and incessant creations, the very pulsation and 
throbbing of his intellect, — he gives utterance to 



15 

them all, — in a corresponding language, which is 
as multiform as this inward mental action itself, 
and analogous to it; the faithful expression of 
his intense pei-sonality, attending on his own in- 
ward world of thought as its very shadow: so 
that we might as well say that one man's shadow 
is another's, as that the style of a really gifted 
mind can belong to any but himself. It follows 
him about as a shadow. His thought and feel- 
ing are personal, and so his language is personal. 

Thought and speech are inseparable from each 
other. Matter and expression are parts of one : 
style is a thinking out into language. This is 
what I have been laying down, and this is lite- 
rature; not things^ not the verbal symbols of 
things ; not on the other hand mere words; but 
thoughts expressed in language. Call to mind, 
Gentlemen, the meaning of the Greek word, 
which expresses this special prerogative of man 
over the feeble intelligence of the inferior animals. 
It is called \6yog: what does Xoyog mean? it 
stands both for reason and for speech, and it is 
difficult to say which it means more properly. 
It means both at once : why ? because really they 
cannot be divided, — because they are in a true 



16 

sense one. When we can separate light and 
illumination, life and motion, the convex and 
the concave of a curve, then will it be possible for 
thought to tread speech under foot, and to hope 
to do without it — then will it be conceivable that 
the vigorous and fertile intellect should renounce 
its own double, its instrument of expression, and 
the channel of its speculations and emotions. 

Critics should consider this view of the subject 
before they lay down such canons of taste as the 
writer whose pages I have quoted. Such men as 
he consider fine writing to be an addition from 
without to the matter treated of, — a sort of orna- 
ment superinduced, or a luxury indulged in, by 
those who have time and inclination for such 
vanities. They speak as if one man could do the 
thought, and another the style. We read in Per- 
sian travels of the way in which young gentlemen 
go to work in the East, when they would engage 
in correspondence with those who inspire them 
with hope or fear. They cannot write one sen- 
tence themselves; so they betake themselves to 
the professional letter-writer. They confide to 
him the object they have in view. They have a 
point to gain from a superior, a favour to ask, an 
evil to deprecate ; they have to approach a man 



17 

in power, or to make court to some beautiful 
lady. The professional man manufactures words 
for them, as they are wanted, as a stationer sells 
them paper, or a schoolmaster might cut their 
pens. Thought and word arc, in their concep- 
tion, two things, and thus there is a division of 
labour. The man of thought comes to the man 
of words ; and the man of words, duly instructed 
in the thought, dips the pen of desire into the ink 
of devotedness, and proceeds to spread it over the 
page of desolation. Then the nightingale of af- 
fection is heard to warble to the rose of loveliness, 
while the breeze of anxiety plays around the brow 
of expectation. This is what the Easterns are 
said to consider fine writing ; and it seems pretty 
much the idea of the school of critics, to whom I 
have been referring. 

We have an instance in literary history of this 
very proceeding nearer home, in a great Univer- 
sity, in the latter years of the last century. I have 
referred to it before now in a public lecture else- 
where; but it is too much in point here to be 
omitted. A learned Arabic scholar had to deliver 
a set of lectures before its doctors and professors 
on an historical subject in which his reading had 
lain. A linguist is conversant with science rather 



18 

than with literature ; but this gentleman felt that 
his lectures must not be without a style. Being 
of the opinion of the Orientals, with whose wri- 
tings he was familiar, he determined to buy a style. 
He took the step of engaging a person, at a price, 
to turn the matter which he had got together, 
into rhetorical English. Observe, he did not wish 
for mere grammatical English, but for an ambi- 
tious, pretentious style. An artist was found in the 
person of a country curate, and the job was carried 
out. His lectures remain to this day , in their own 
place in the protracted series of annual Discourses 
to which they belong, distinguished amid a num- 
ber of heavyish compositions by the rhetorical 
and ambitious diction for which he went into the 
market. This learned divine, indeed, and the 
author I have quoted, differ from each other in 
the estimate they respectively foi-m of literary 
composition ; but they agree together in this, — in 
considering such composition a trick and a trade ; 
they put it on a par with the gold plate and the 
flowers and the music of a banquet, which do 
not make the viands better, but the entertain- 
ment more pleasurable ; as if language were the 
hired servant, the mere mistress of the reason, and 
not the lawful wife in her own house. 



19 

But can they really think that Homer, or Pin- 
dar, or Shakespeare, or Dryden, or Walter Scott, 
were accustomed to aim at diction for its own 
sake, instead of being inspired with their subject, 
and pouring forth bcautifid words because they 
had beautiful thoughts ? this is surely too great 
a paradox to be borne. Rather, it is the fire with- 
in the author's breast which overflows in the 
torrent of his burning, irresistible eloquence; it 
it is the poetry of his inner soul, which relieves 
itself in the Ode or the Elegy ; and his mental 
attitude and bearing, the beauty of his moral 
countenance, the force and keenness of his logic, 
are imaged in the tenderness, or energy, or rich- 
ness of his language. Nay, according to the well- 
known line, " facit indignatio versus" ; not the 
words alone, but even the rhythm, the metre, the 
verse, will be the contemporaneous offspring of 
the emotion or imagination which possesses him. 
" Poeta nascitur, non fit", says the proverb; and 
this is in numerous instances true of his poems, 
as well as of himself They are bom, not framed ; 
they are a strain rather than a composition ; and 
their perfection is the monument, not so much of 
his skill as of his power. And this is true of 
prose as well as of verse in its degree: who will 



20 

not recognize in the vision of Mirza a delicacy 
and beauty of style which is very difficult to de- 
scribe, but which is felt to be in exact correspon- 
dence to the ideas of whicli it is the expression ? 
And; since the thoughts and reasonings of an 
author have, as we have said, a personal cha- 
racter, no wonder that his style is not only the 
image of his subject, but of his mind. That 
pomp of language, that full and tuneful diction, 
that felicitousness in the choice and exquisiteness 
in the collocation of words, whicli to prosaic wri- 
ters seem artificial, is nothing else but the mere 
habit and way of a lofty intellect. Aristotle, in 
his sketch of the magnanimous man, tells us that 
his voice is deep, his motions slow, and his sta- 
ture commanding. In like manner, the elocu- 
tion of a great intellect is great. His language 
expresses, not only his great thoughts, but his 
great self Certainly he might use fewer words 
than he uses ; but he fertilizes his simplest ideas, 
and bursts out into a multitude of details, and 
prolongs the march of his sentences, and sweeps 
round to the full diapason of his harmony, as if 
Kvdei yaiwv, rejoicing in his own vigour and 
richness of resource. I say, a narrow critic will 
call it verbiage, when really it is a sort of ful- 



21 



ness of heart, parallel to that which makes the 
merry boy whistle as he walks, or the strong 
man, like the smith in the novel, flourish his club 
when there is no one to fight with. 

Shakespeare furnishes us with frequent in- 
stances of this peculiarity, and all so beautiful, 
that it is difficult to select for quotation. For 
instance, in Macbeth: — 

" Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, 
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, 
Raze out the written troubles of the brain, 
And, with some sweet oblivious antidote, 
Cleanse the foul bosom of that perilous stuff, 
Which weighs upon the heart ? " 

Here a simple idea, by a process which is that 
of the orator rather than of the poet, but still 
from the native vigour of genius, is expanded 
into a many-membered period. 

The following from Hamlet is of the same 
kind : — 

" Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, 
Nor customary suits of solemn black, 
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath, 
No, nor the fruitful river of the eye, 
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage, 
Together with all forms, modes, shows of grief, 
That can denote me truly". 



9-7 



Now, if sucli declamation, for declamation it is, 
liowever noble, be allowable in a poet, whose 
genius is so far removed from pompousness or 
pretence, mucli more is it allowable in an orator, 
whose very province it is to put forth words 
to the best advantage he can. Cicero has nothing 
more redundant in any part of his writings than 
these passages from Shakespeare. No lover then 
at least of Shakespeare may fairly accuse Cicero 
of gorgeousness of phraseology or difFuseness of 
style. Nor will any sound critic be tempted to 
do so. As a certain unstudied neatness and 
propriety and grace of diction may be required 
of any author who lays claim to be a classic, for 
the same reason that a certain attention to dress 
is expected of every gentleman ; so to Cicero may 
be allowed the privilege of the " os magna sona- 
turum", of which the ancient critic speaks. His 
copious, majestic, musical flow of language, even 
if sometimes beyond what the subject-matter de- 
mands, is never out of keeping with the occasion 
or with the speaker. It is the expression of lofty 
sentiments in lofty sentences, the " mens magna 
in corpore magno". It is the development of the 
inner man. Cicero vividly realised the status of 
a Roman senator and statesman, and the pride of 



23 

place of Rome, in all the grace and grandeur 
which attached to her ; and he imbibed and be- 
came what he admired. As the exploits of 
Scipio or Pompey are the expression of this 
greatness in deed, so the language of Cicero is 
the expression of it in word. And, as the acts 
of the Roman ruler or soldier represent to us, in 
a manner special to themselves, the characteristic 
magnanimity of the lords of the earth, so do the 
speeclies or treatises of her accomplished orator 
bring it home to our imaginations as no other 
writing could do. Neither Livy, nor Tacitus, 
nor Terence, nor Seneca, nor Pliny, nor Quin- 
tillian, is an adequate spokesman for the Imperial 
City. They write Latin; Cicero writes Roman. 

You will say that Cicero's language is un- 
deniably studied, but that Shakespeare's is as un- 
deniably natural and spontaneous ; and that this 
is what is meant, when the classics are accused of 
being mere artists of words. Here we are intro- 
duced to a further large question, which gives 
me the opportunity of anticipating a misappre- 
hension of my meaning. I observe then, that, 
not only is that lavish richness of style, which I 
have noticed in Shakespeare, justifiable on the 



24 

principles which I have been laying down, but* 
what is less easy to receive, even elaborateness in 
composition is no mark of trick or artifice in an 
author. Undoubtedly the works of the classics, 
particularly the Latin, m^e elaborate ; they have 
cost a great deal of time, care, and trouble. They 
have had many rough copies ; I grant it. I grant 
also that there are writers of name, ancient and 
modem, who really are guilty of the absurdity of 
making sentences, as the end of their employ- 
ploy ment. Such was Isocrates ; such were some 
of the sophists ; they were set on words, to the 
neglect of thoughts or things ; I cannot defend 
them. If I must give an English instance of this 
fault, much as I love and revere the personal 
character and intellectual vigour of Dr. Johnson, 
I cannot deny that his style often outruns the 
sense and the occasion, and is wanting in that 
simplicity which is the attribute of genius. Still, 
granting all this, I cannot grant, notwithstanding, 
that genius never need take pains, — that genius 
may not improve by practice, — that it never com- 
mits failures, and succeeds the second time, — that 
it never finishes off at leisure what it has thrown 
off in the outline at a stroke. 

Take the instance of the painter or the sculptor ; 



25 

he has a conception in his mind which he wishes 
to represent in the medium of his art ; — the Ma- 
donna and Child, or Innocence, or Fortitude, or 
some historical character or event. Do you mean 
to say he does not study his subject? does he not 
make sketches? does he not even call them "stu- 
dies"? does he not call his workroom a studio? 
is he not ever designing, rejecting, adopting, cor- 
recting, perfecting ? Are not the first attempts of 
Michael Angelo and Raffaelle extant, in the case 
of some of their most celebrated compositions ? 
Will any one say that the Apollo Belvidere is 
not a conception patiently elaborated into its 
proper perfection? These departments of taste 
are, according to the received notions of the 
world, the very province of genius, and yet we 
call them arts; they are the " Fine Arts". Why 
may not that be true of literary composition, 
which is true of painting, sculpture, architecture, 
and music ? Why may not language be wrought 
as well as the clay of the modeller ? why may 
not words be worked up as well as colours ? why 
should not skill in diction be simply subservient 
and instrumental to the great prototypal ideas 
which are the contemplation of a Plato or a Vir- 
gil ? Our greatest poet tells us, 



26 



" The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, 

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven, 

And, as imagination bodies forth 

The form of things unknown, the poet's pen 

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing 

A local habitation and a name". 



Now, is it Avonderful, tliat that pen of his 
should sometimes be at fault for a while, — that it 
should pause, write, erase, re- write, amend, com- 
plete, before he satisfied himself that his language 
had done justice to the conceptions which his 
mind's eye contemplated? 

In this point of view, doubtless, many or most 
writers are elaborate ; and those certainly not the 
least, whose style is furthest removed from orna- 
ment, being simple and natural, or vehement, or 
severely business-like and practical. Who so ener- 
getic and manly as Demosthenes? Yet he is 
said to have transcribed Thucydides nine times 
over in the formation of his style. Who so grace- 
fully natural as Herodotus ? yet his very dialect 
is not his own, but chosen for the sake of the 
perfection of his narrative. Who exhibits such 
happy negligence as our own Addison? yet 
artistic fastidiousness was so notorious in his in- 
stance, that the report has got abroad, truly or 



27 

not, that he was too late in his issue of an im- 
portant state paper, from his habit of revision 
and re-coraposition. Such great authors were 
working by a model which was before the eyes 
of their intellect, and they were labouring to 
say what they had to say, in such a way as would 
most exactly and suitably express it. It is not 
wonderful that other authors, whose style is not 
simple, should be instances of a similar literary 
diligence. Virgil wished his ^Eneid to be burned, 
elaborate as is its composition, because he felt it 
needed more labour still, in order to make it 
perfect. The historian Gibbon in the last cen- 
tury is another instance in point. You must not 
suppose I am going to recommend his style for 
imitation, any more than his infidelity; but I 
refer to him as the example of a writer feeling 
the task which la}'- before him, feeling that he 
had to bring out into words for the comprehen- 
sion of liis readers a great and complicated scene, 
and wishing that his words should be adequate 
to his undertaking. I think he wrote the first 
chapter of his History three times over ; it was 
not that he corrected or improved the first copy ; 
but he put his first essay, and then his second, 
aside — he recast his matter, till he had hit the 



28 

precise exhibition of.it wliicli he thought de- 
manded by his subject. 

Now in all these instances, I wish you to ob- 
serve, what I have admitted about literary work- 
manship, differs from the doctrine which I am 
opposing in this, — that the mere dealer in words 
cares little or nothing for the subject which he 
is embellishing, but can paint and gild anything 
whatever to order; whereas the artist, whom I 
am acknowledging, has his great or rich visions 
before him, and his only aim is to bring out what 
he thinks or what he feels, in a way adequate 
to the thing spoken of, and appropriate to the 
speaker. 

The illustration which I have been borrowing 
from the Fine Arts will enable me to go a step 
further. I have been showing the connection of 
the thought with the language in literary compo- 
sition ; and in doing so, I have exposed the un- 
philosophical notion, that the language was an 
extra which could be dispensed with, and pro- 
vided to order according to the demand. But I 
have not yet brought out, what immediately fol- 
lows from this, and which was the second point 
which I had to show, viz., that to be capable 



29 

of easy translation is no test of the excellence of 
a composition. If I must say what I think, I 
should lay down with little hesitation, that the 
truth was ahnost the reverse of this doctrine. Nor 
are many words required to show it. Such a 
doctrine as is contained in the passage of the 
Anglo-Irish author I quoted, goes upon the as- 
sumption that one language is just like another 
language, — that every langviage has all the ideas, 
turns of thought, delicacies of expression, figures, 
associations, abstractions, points of view, which 
every other language has. Now, as far as regards 
Science, it is true that all languages are pretty 
much alike for the purposes of Science ; but even in 
this respect some are more suitable than others, 
which have to coin words, or to borrow them, in 
order to express scientific ideas. But if lan- 
guages are not all equally adapted even to fur- 
nish symbols for those universal and eternal 
truths in which Science consists, how can they 
reasonably be expected to be all equally rich, 
equally forcible, equally musical, equally exact, 
equally happy in expressing the idiosyncratic 
peculiarities of thought of some original and rich 
mind, who has availed himself of one of them ? 
A great author takes his native language, masters 



30 

it, partly throws himself into it, partly moulds 
and adapts it, and pours out his multitude of 
ideas through the variously ramified and deli- 
cately minute channels of expression which he 
has found or framed ; does it follow that this his 
personal presence (as it may be called) can forth- 
with be transferred to every other language un- 
der the sun ? Then may we reasonably maintain 
that Beethoven's jyiano music is not really beau- 
tiful, because it cannot be played on the hurdy- 
gurdy. Were not this astonishing doctrine main- 
tained by persons far superior to the writer whom 
I have selected for animadversion, I should find 
it difficult to be patient under a gratuitous extra- 
vagance. It seems that a really great author 
must admit of translation, and that it is a test of 
his excellence when he reads to advantage in a 
foreign language as well as in his own. Then 
Shakespeare is a genius because he can be trans- 
lated into German, and 7iot a genius because 
he cannot be translated into French. Then the 
pence-table is the most gifted of all conceivable 
compositions, because it loses nothing by trans- 
lation, and can hardly be said to belong to any 
one language whatever. Whereas I should rather 
have conceived, that, in propoition as ideas are 



31 



novel and recondite, tliey would be difficult to 
put into words, and tliat tlie very fact of tlieir 
having insinuated themselves into one language, 
would diminish the chance of the happy acci- 
dent being repeated in another. In the language 
of savages you can hardly express any idea or act 
of the intellect at all : is the tongue of the Hot- 
tentot or Esquimaux to be made the measure of 
the genius of Plato, Pindar, Tacitus, St. Jerome, 
Dante, or Cervantes? 

Let us recur, I say, to the illustration of the 
Fine Arts. I suppose you can express ideas in 
painting which you cannot express in sculpture ; 
and the more an artist is of a painter, the less he 
is likely to be of a sculptor. The more he com- 
mits his genius to the methods and conditions of 
his own art, the less he will be able to throw 
himself into the circumstances of another. Is 
the genius of Fra Angelico, of Francia, or of 
RafFaelle disparaged by the fact, that he was able 
to do that in colours which no man that ever 
lived, which no angel, could achieve in wood? 
Each of the Fine Arts has its own subject- 
matter; from the nature of the case you can do 
in one what you cannot do in another ; you can 
do in painting what you cannot do in carving; 



32 

you can do in oils wliat jou cannot do in fresco ; 
you can do in marble what you cannot do in 
ivory ; you can do in wax wliat you cannot do 
in bronze. Then, I repeat, applying this to the 
case of languages, why should not genius be able 
to do in Greek what it cannot do in Latin? and 
why are its Greek and Latin works defective, be- 
cause they will not turn into English ? That genius 
of which we are speaking did not make English ; 
it did not make all languages, present, past, and 
future ; it did not make any language : why is it 
to be judged of by that in which it had no part, 
over which it has no control ? 

And now we are naturally brought on to our 
third point, which is on the characteristics of 
Holy Scripture as compared with profane lite- 
rature. Hitherto we have been concerned with 
the doctrine of these writers, viz., that style is an 
extra^ that it is a mere artifice, and that hence it 
cannot be translated ; now we come to their fact, 
viz., that Scripture has no such artificial style, 
and that Scripture can easily be translated. Surely 
their fact is as untenable as their doctrine. 

Scripture easy of translation ! then why have 
there been so few good translators ? why is it that 



33 

there has been such great difficulty to combine 
tlie two necessary qualities, fidelity to the original 
and purity in the adopted vernacular? why is it 
that the authorized versions of the Church are 
often so inferior to the original as compositions, 
except that the Church is boimd above all things 
to see that the version is doctrinally correct, and 
in a difficult problem is obliged to put up with 
defects in what is of secondary importance, pro- 
vided she secure what is of first ? If it were so 
easy to transfer the beauty of the original to the 
copy, she would not have been content with her 
received version in various languages which could 
be named. 

And then in the next place, Scripture not 
elaborate! Scripture not ornamented in diction, 
and musical in cadence ! Why, consider the 
Epistle to the Hebrews — where is there in the 
classics any composition more carefully, more 
artificially written ? Consider the book of Job — 
is it not a sacred drama, as artistic, as perfect, as 
any Greek tragedy of Sophocles or Euripides? 
Consider the Psalter — are there no ornaments, no 
rhythm, no studied cadences, no responsive mem- 
bers, in that divinely beautiful book ? And is it 
not hard to understand? are not the Prophets 

3 



34 

hard to understand? .is not St. Paul hard to 
understand ? Who can say that these are popular 
compositions ? who can say that they are level at 
first reading with the understandings of the mul- 
titude ? 

That there are portions indeed of the inspired 
volume more simple both in style and in mean- 
ing, and that these are the more sacred and sub- 
lime passages, as, for instance, parts of the Gospels, 
I grant at once ; but this does not mihtate against 
the doctrine I have been laying down. Recollect, 
Gentlemen, my distinction when I began. I have 
said Literature is one thing, and that Science is 
another ; that Literature has to do with ideas, and 
Science with reahties ; that Literature is of a per- 
sonal character, that Science treats of what is 
universal and eternal. In proportion, then, as 
Scripture excludes the personal colouring of its 
writers, and rises into the region of pure and mere 
inspiration, when it ceases in any sense to be the 
writing of man, of St. Paul or St. John, of Moses 
or Isaias, then it comes to belong to Science, not 
Literature. Then it conveys the things of heaven, 
unseen verities, divine manifestations, and them 
alone — ^not the ideas, the feelings, the aspirations, 
of its human instruments, who, for all that they 



35 

are inspired and infallible, did not cease to be 
men. St. Paul's epistles, then, I consider to be 
literature in a real and true sense, as personal, as 
rich in reflection and emotion, as Demosthenes or 
Euripides ; and, without ceasing to be revelations 
of objective truth, they are expressions of the 
subjective notwithstanding. On the other hand, 
portions of the Gospels, of the book of Genesis, 
and other passages of the Sacred Volume, are of 
the nature of Science. Such is the beginning of 
St. John's Gospel, which we read at the end of 
Mass. Such is the Creed. I mean, passages 
such as these are the mere enunciation of eternal 
things, without (so to say) the medium of any 
human mind transmitting them to us. The words 
used have the grandeur, the majesty, the calm, 
imimpassioned beauty of Science ; they are in no 
sense Literatui'e, they are in no sense personal; 
and therefore they are easy to apprehend, and 
easy to translate. 

Did time admit, I could show you parallel in- 
stances of what I am speaking of in the Classics, 
inferior to the inspired word, in proportion as the 
subject-matter of the classical authors is immensely 
inferior to the subjects treated of in Scripture — 
but parallel, inasmuch as the classical author or 



speaker ceases for the moment to have to do with 
Literature, as speaking objectively of things, and 
rises to the serene sublimity of Science. But I 
should be carried too far if I began. 

I shall then merely sum up what I have said, 
and come to a conclusion. Reverting then to my 
original question, what is the meaning of Letters, 
as contained, Gentlemen, in the designation of 
your Faculty, I have answered, that by Letters 
or Literature is meant the expression of thought 
in language, where by "thought" I mean the 
ideas, feehngs, views, reasonings, and other opera- 
tions of the human mind. And the Art of Let- 
ters is the method by which a speaker or writer 
brings out in words, worthy of his subject, and 
sufficient for his audience or readers, the thoughts 
which impress him. Literature, then, is of a per- 
sonal character; it consists in the enunciations 
and teachings of those who have a right to speak 
as representatives of their kind, and in whose 
words their brethren find an interpretation of 
their own sentiments, a record of their own ex- 
perience, and a suggestion for their own judg- 
ments. A great author. Gentlemen, is not one 
who merely has a copia verborum, whether in 



prose or verse, and can, as it were, turn on any 
number of splendid phrases and swelling sen- 
tences at his will; but he is one who has some- 
thing to say and knows how to say it. I do not 
claim for him, as such, any great depth of 
thought, or breadth of view, or pliilosophy, or 
sagacity, or knowledge of human nature, or ex- 
perience of hirnian life, though these additional 
gifts he may have, and the more he has of them 
the greater he is ; but I ascribe to him, as his 
characteristic gift, in a large sense the faculty of 
Expression. He is master of the two-fold Xo-yoc, 
the thought and the word, distinct, but insepara- 
ble from each other. He may, if so be, elabo- 
rate his compositions, or he may pour out his im- 
provisations, but in either case he has but one 
aim, and is conscientious and single-minded in 
fulfiUing it. That aim is to give forth what he 
has within him ; and from his very earnestness it 
comes to pass, that, whatever be the splendour of 
hie diction or the harmony of his periods, he has 
with him the charm of an incommunicable sim- 
pUcity. Whatever be his subject, high or low, 
he treats it suitably and for its own sake. If he 
is a poet, " nil molitur inepte\ If he is an ora- 
tor, then too he speaks, not only '• distincte" and 



38 

splendide", but also " apte\ His page is the clear 
mirror of his mind and life — 

" Quo fit, ut omnis 
Votiva pateat veluti descripta tabella 
Vita senis". 

He writes passionately, because he feels keenly ; 
forcibly, because he conceives vividly ; he sees too 
clearly to be vague ; he is too serious to be otiose ; 
he can analyze his subject, and therefore he is 
rich ; he embraces it as a whole and in its parts, 
and therefore he is consistent ; he has a firm hold of 
it, and therefore he is luminous. When his imagi- 
nation wells up, it overflows in ornament ; when 
his heart is touched, it thrills along his verse. He 
always has the right word for the right idea, 
and never a word too much. If he is brief, it is 
because few words sufiice ; if he is lavish of them, 
still each word has its mark, and aids, not embar- 
rasses, the vigorous march of his elocution. He 
expresses what all feel, but all cannot say ; and 
his sayings pass into proverbs among his people, 
and his phi-ases become household words and 
idioms of their daily speech, which is tesselated 
with the rich fragments of his language, as we 
see in foreign lands the marbles of Roman gran- 



39 

deur worked into the walls and pavements of mo- 
dern palaces. 

Such preeminently is Shakespeare among our- 
selves ; such preeminently Virgil among the 
Latins ; such in their degree are all those writers, 
who in every nation go by the name of Classics. 
To particular nations they are necessarily at- 
tached from the circumstance of the variety of 
tongues, and the pecuHarities of each ; but so far 
they have a catholic and ecumenical character, 
that what they express is common to the whole 
race of man, and they alone are able to express it. 

If then the power of speech is a gift as great 
as any that can be named, — if the origin of lan- 
guage is by many philosophers even considered 
to be nothing short of divine, — if by means of 
words the secrets of the heart are brought to 
light, pain of soul is reheved, hidden grief is car- 
ried off, sympathy conveyed, counsel imparted, 
experience recorded, and wisdom perpetuated, — 
if by great authors the many are drawn up into 
unity, national character is fixed, a people speaks, 
the past and the future, the East and the West 
brought into communication with each other, — if 
such men are, in a word, the spokesmen and pro- 



40 

phets of the human family, — it will not answer to 
make light of Literature or to neglect its study ; 
rather we may be sure that, in proportion as we 
master it, in whatever language, and imbibe its 
spirit, we shall ourselves become in our own mea- 
sure the ministers of like benefits to those, — 
though they may be few, though they may be in 
the obscurer walks of life, — who are united to us 
by social ties and are within the sphere of our 
personal influence. 



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